Saturday, May 28, 2016

Truth or Consequences: New Mexico or Story

Of the many possible and, in ironic counterpoint, definitions of the condition or quality known as truth, this simplistic, even reductionist one is appropriate: A conformity to actual fact. 

You could also say truth was a frequent conformity to fact, opening the door for truth, as, indeed, all qualities, to be relative. For you, truth would be at least a six on a scale of one to ten for conformity. 

If you said water boiled at one hundred Celsius degrees or two hundred twelve Fahrenheit degrees, you'd be up around nine point five of conformity to fact, provided you stipulated the heating site was at sea level.  

The wiggle room resides in water boiling at temperatures other than the hundred or two hundred twelve degree scale.  Water would not boil at the hundred- or two hundred twelve-degree levels in Denver, Colorado. This much is true.

Speaking of truth, one of your major mentors was an actor, who spoke to you with frequency and length about how an actor has to work to find the truth of a character she is chosen to play. By this, she referred to the way a particular character sees internal and external things and phenomena as authentic. 

No stretch of truth to say Dorothy Gale believed herself to be no longer in Kansas, to the degree of realizing she needed some help in moving from Oz, back home to Kansas.

Hearing this constant reference to the truth, as a specific character saw it, became a major point leading to the understanding of the nature of character, dialogue, and narrative in fiction; as well, an introduction to the understanding of individuals in straight time. 

One result was another simplistic-but-instructive vision of what story is: two or more individuals, believing his/her vision was true,while others were not. Thus: "How long are you going to continue with the lies?"

In consequence of such speculative definitions, you find it possible, even truthful, to declare: Sooty is the outcome of two or more characters, forging through words and deeds the result of an argument in which one character defeats or neutralizes the arguments of other characters. You could also say story is the mutual agreement of a vocabulary of feelings and concepts to be used from now on, the now beginning as the story is brought to closure.

The takeaway for you from this day's writing workshop resides in the observation: Truth is not always readily visible.  While the student was talking about her work in process, you wrote down her observation, first because of your interpretation (or truth) that her protagonist was looking to identify his truth, secondly because of your belief that writers are in a struggle to discern their own interior truth and the truth of their multifarious characters.

At the least, story for you is trying to write through the fog of unknowing and indistinct vision to the place where you can be sure water boils and at what temperature.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fiction: Subversive Literature on Steroids

It is a truth recognized with some regularity that the novel is subversive, this recognition shared by readers, writers, and critics. An additional truth reveals how some writers of novels, their readers, and their critics wish to have nothing to do with subversive activity in the novel.

These individuals want instead some variation on the theme of a happy ending in which none of the major characters are pushed beyond their established boundaries, and culture, regardless of its place on the spectrum of human behavior, congratulates established conventions rather than extending them.

However subversive Jane Austen may have been with her encouragement of the democratic marriage, in which classes are free to marry above or below their status, she pays dearly for the advocacy by implying that marriage is without future conflict. 

For all his inspired moments of satire, Dickens was also promoting a form of smug certainty in the notion that marriage, hard work, and thrifty habits were virtuous ends in themselves. 

To no one's surprise, Dickens' significant popularity led an American counterpart in theme if not dramatic talent to an enormous, non-subversive success. That writer was Horatio Alger,(1832-99), whose name became synonymous with his theme, rags to riches.

You've been involved in the publication of a number of novels that were non-subversive in their narrative intend, their goals to feed a need for a narrative from which the reader comes away feeling that improbable outcomes such as living happily ever after and of virtue  being rewarded, and of nice persons finishing first were easier come by than they were in actuality.

Without wishing to enter the arena of judging or defending such novels, you recognize your dealings with them and others where your only participation was as a reader, was a part of a learning process, both editorial on the professional side of the ledger and instructive on the personal side. You in fact wrote and published a few such novels as well, all part of a process you intended to be lifelong.

Such associations led you to admire and spend more time with so-called noir fiction. Here, the characters were of greater depth and vulnerability, without you, at first, realizing this fact. Then, as you did see and sympathize, your sympathies for such individuals began to lead you down paths blazed by the quintessential Marxist, Karl Marx, himself. 

From his lead, you found a number of men and women writers of fiction whose narratives led you to believe they were aware of Marxist themes relating to commodities, the labor necessary to produce and earn money to buy such commodities, and the the things individuals would be willing to do in order to, as your father put it, "be able to smoke five-dollar cigars with no concern for bank balance or conscience."

You'd turned thirty when you found a novel that had a profound effect on your life then and has continued to help shape your vision of how a novel could be used as a subversive element. You first read a review of Joseph Heller's magisterial Catch-22 in one of the then splendid left-leaning magazines, The Nation, to which you'd subscribed for many years, until, one day as you were reading in it, you discerned that with one exception, all its writers sounded the same, wrote with the same, punchy, pseudo-hectoring tone of nag and complaint. The one exception, Alexander Cockburn, had a voice that you'd recognize some years later in another subversive writer, Christopher Hitchens.

Much as you admired the visions of Cockburn and Hitchens and their incessant subversive writing, you're in this for fiction, where the subversion of Catch-22 shook you by your thirty-year-old shoulders, and told you, "Fuck yeah."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Figuring Things, in and out

The poet John Keats, begins his poem, "Endymion," with the arresting observation:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness--

Given the hours of gaping, gawking, and staring you've put in at various museums and galleries, featuring displays of such things as oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, ceramics, statuary, etching, and photography from a diverse menu of times and cultures, you've spent as many years since reading the entire poem in agreement with the sentiments expressed.

You're aware of persons who are not familiar with that poem, knowing the first line without knowing its author or the larger context to which it is attached. Some years back, you became aware that the poem, itself, is a thing and, yes, it extends the truth of the poem by demonstrating that the line and the entire poem are things of beauty. It is your nature to chew over Keats' assessments and your response to them. 

Beauty is an assigned quality. For that matter, lack of beauty is also an assigned judgment. A thing you consider beautiful or its opposite are judgments you make about the thing, coloring your regard or disregard for it, thus effecting your outer and inner postures.

Brief digression here for a disclosure: Keats is one of your favorite poets. Even more than the likelihood of you quoting "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," you are even more likely to quote another line of his from his poem, "The Ever of St. Agnes, in fact, the third line, "  The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass..."  Added truth to tell, you're also fond of his poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," where there is at least one line you are bound to bring forth after a modest quantity of a pinot noir or medoc.

Thus you have here for starters three things in the form of poems and three additional things , individual lines from the poems, making at least six things, all of which, by your definition, and with a nod of respect to John Keats, are things of beauty. 

Until your recent preoccupation with focusing on such things as meaning, the meaning of the process of meaning, things, and the nuanced and complex relationships between people and things, you were more likely to have written at greater length and depth about beauty than about things.

At this point in your investigations and musings, things, even though they have tangible qualities beyond the basic ones of length, width, depth, and shape, get something tangible from their association with humans. They are often put to one or more specific uses, displayed, maintained, or merely kept in some circumstance indicative of their status. Humans assign values to many things, these values ranging from monetary to artistic to usefulness.

If judgments will allow themselves to be classified as things--what, in fact, is a judgment if not a thing?--they, too invite not only classifications but attitudes. You, for example, may judge a particular individual, through his or her behavior, foolish or prideful or funny or empathetic. 

In similar fashion, you may judge a human not by his or her judged qualities (things, remember?) but rather by the things with which they surround themselves, ranging from clothing and jewelry to paintings, music collections, statuary, automobiles, animals.

Tell me a word is not a thing or that certain words are better at defining a meaning or intention than others, while yet other words are inoffensive or inspirational. Much of what you do for outer and inner living is related to words and their effects on you and others. Thus is your reason for being and living bound in a curious equation you are trying to understand as, indeed, you have spent so much of your life, in one way or another, trying to figure things out.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Object in Question

The relationship between humans and animals has a long, splendid history. You have distinct animal benchmarks in your life, companions and role models of high order. Recitation of their names evokes a sinuous pattern of warmth and ongoing connection. 

The Intimate Bond, a most recent book from an author you've guided through many a publication has to do with such relationships, its pages becoming a meaningful vision of humans in their dealings with animals and the reverse perspective of how animals were domesticated. In the bargain, we see the history of how the association has had benefits and disadvantages for the human species and the animal.

Another relationship intrigues you in the broad, general sense and in the more personal, even idiosyncratic sense--the relationship between humans and objects. This same relationship occupied the thoughts of a contemporary thinker, Martin Heidegger (1119-1976), whom you've consulted in your quest for understanding of the nature of self, of being, understanding and learning, by no means in a scholarly sense, rather to help you in your attempts to construct fictions that seem real.

Setting explodes with importance in such attempts because of the need to place your characters somewhere tangible if your fiction is to convey the sense of reality you hope to achieve. When you think of settings, your mind's eye conjures landscapes, interiors, vehicles, decorations. If the setting is historical, you know from experience that readers of historical fiction like the details of clothing and of furniture, drapery, rugs, works of art; in other words, objects.

The choice of objects in a setting helps define the characters who put them there and use them. You are not alone in judging characters by the objects with which they surround themselves, and in certain of the critical theory classes for writers you present, you're fond of using an example of a man with a fishing rod and reel as a significant example of how a prop, an object, defines and articulates a character. 

"Consider a man," you tell your students, "whom we see showing more concern for and taking better care of his rod and reel than the concern and care he shows for his wife. The rod and reel may be a primary source of quality protein for the man's family, which is one explanation for the care he lavishes on them, but that focused concern for objects also speaks to the role of the wife in that marriage and, indeed,among those of a similar social caste.

Using the same fishing rod and reel and a different social class, you are able to demonstrate another example of how things help define people. Let's say this owner of rod and reel is affluent, takes poor care of his objects, allowing them to rust. If we see this family setting in contact with the previous one, we may be led to assume this owner and abuser of rod and reel might in one way or others, show a neglect for his wife and children.

Heidegger is at some pains to distinguish an object from a thing, even to the point of showing how a thing was once an object to some human. For reasons of pure sentiment, you've kept two of the delicate, beautiful china tea cups your mother prized as well as an elaborate tea pot which you have never used. Your fondness for coffee does not preclude your interest in tea or, for that matter, tea brewed in a tea pot rather than a single serving using a cup and tea bag.

You also have and use with some regularity a small dish your late wife purchased at some yard sale for a dime. The person who sold her the dish for a dime considered the dish a thing. Each time you use it, you think of it as an object. 

Unless you give the tea cups and pot to one of your nieces, where they will continue to remain objects, they will find their way to some yard sale or other, through no fault of their own demoted from object to thing. In all probability, the fine bone china tea cups will sell for ten or fifteen cents each.

The Richard III of Shakespeare's play is better known to most of us than the actual, historical Richard, in no small measure because of his urgent, from-the-heart plea to the heavens, "My kingdom for a horse." 

As yet untold stories reside in the desires you have had for various objects, for the ones with you now surround yourself at this juncture of your life, and your range of experience as yet other objects in your life have been demoted to things. At this writing, and for reasons you cannot explain with any sense of comprehensive coverage, your kingdom, such as it is, would go for a stuffed dog, faded blue, one button eye missing, a true relic of the Great Depression into which you and he were born. His name was, and shall always be for you, Prosperity.

Monday, May 23, 2016

When a Thing Becomes a Metaphor for Something Other Than Itself

Most of the things we see about us on a given day do not have descriptive tags attached to them. Even though all of us come into the world having to learn the names and functions of things through instruction and experience, most of our species, past a certain basic age, know and can distinguish the objects they encounter on.

 Furthermore, most of us are able to visualize with some accuracy an object once we are presented with its name. If we are presented with the name of an object we do not know, curiosity often drives us to make the connection. The reverse is also true. "Hey," we ask individuals we suspect will know, "what is this gadget?"

Questions persists: How does a person know what a thing is? How does a person know what a thing means? At what point does a thing become a metaphor for something other than itself? And one final question, although may others are possible, What happens when a specific object, say a fountain pen, has differing meanings for different individuals?

At one time in your life, stories meant different things to you than they do now. Stories meant a series of linked, related events in which one or more characters attempt to discover something, meet obstacles from their attempts, then encounter the object of their search in such circumstances that they are changed from the individuals they were at the beginning of the quest.

You knew early on if a particular iteration of this formula would please you because, even then, you understood how the story is supposed to give you an idea of what the quest for discovery is, and because, particularly back then, you enjoyed the early attempts to discover what the obstacles were, because obstacles were action.

You did not realize, early on, how some of the obstacles, both in movies and novels, reflected certain cultural or political biases or how the bad guys always had humiliating payoffs and how women such as Anna Karenina and Nora Helmer had to pay for their courage to break conventional boundaries of behavior.

A visit to some of your notebooks and earlier stories as well as fictional works in progress reveal to you how many different times you have a character observing that he or she has not been him/herself lately, that things aren't always what they appear to be, and that definitions and identities are difficult to come by.

Such things are not mere repetitions; they are preoccupations with states of awareness growing fuzzy, where boundaries have become vague, and where identity is unstable. Many of your formative years were spent in Los Angeles, where buildings are torn down, replaced, given extreme makeovers. 

Things there may be what they seem to be, but many other things are not what they appear to be because of some impatience to put a new fingerprint over an older one. You follow the progress of Los Angeles as though keeping track of an old lover, looking for cracks in a facade, alternately enjoying the breakup and wondering what might have been.

The best philosophy for now is the sense of things being what you wish them to be after you have done enough research to make sure you've not taken the thing for granted and in the process missed something important. You have to let a thing, whether it is a book, a small pebble, or the tube of anchovy paste you discovered in your kitchen storage area, speak to you, objectify it to the point where you can ask of it what it wants you to know.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Choices: The Good Bad Character, or the Bad Good One.

By the time you've worked your way through the taser stings of adolescence and into your twenties, you've had enough experience making decisions to set your mind in overdrive when making most new ones, comfortable you won't freeze up when some downshifting into lower gears becomes necessary.

Unless you've suffered some physical or emotional traumas in the past, new experiences are pretty much events to take for granted or to prepare for in advance. If you are able to look back over some of your more notable failures, you'll run into the reminder that you've always recovered from these to the point where you can go forth, accepting, to use a fielding analogy from baseball, chances. 

And wonder of wonder, looking back on successes, however much you have to sort through the memory file to find some, adds a sense of confidence and panache to your willingness to encounter new experiences.

The same is true in your writing life which, in simplistic terms means snatching up some passing idea or notion as though it were a butterfly that lingered a moment too long on a flowering plant. You have a significant record of successes and failures in this aspect of your inner life, for writing is every bit as much about your inner life as your ability to see the curve ball or change-up coming your way as you stand in the batter's box.

All right, enough with the baseball metaphors, even though games can and do serve as useful metaphors for events off the playing field and into the home, the classroom, the workplace, the writers' room at the TV studio. 

Let's say that in your writing life, you're as used to making writer decisions as you are making person decisions in real life. In the writer decisions, you have to keep in mind the need to produce a simulacrum, a plausible portrait of an atmosphere that could pass for Reality.

A major strand of choices you need to make have to do with the characters you bring forth. Thus, is creating a character who is of good morals and ethics bad for your story? And, is creating a character who is of poor or no morals and ethics good for your story? The question follows the noted play of parallel lines within a given story, when the reader is faced with two thematic progressions, often mirror images or in some way or others, at loggerheads with one another.

The reader knows and expects the parallel lines to converge somewhere, the penultimate chapter if the narrative is long enough to be a novel, the final paragraphs if the narrative has willed itself to be a shorter form.

Good characters, those of superb moral credit rating numbers, tend to be taken over by virtue which, when it is not being comical, is edging toward boredom. Bad characters, not necessarily those who are morally depraved so much as those who invite ways to bend rules and compose elaborate justifications of behavior extending beyond the norm.

As a species of readers into which you place yourself, you note how much easier it is to get behind and root for the evil of two lesser; there soiled man or woman gets your vote and loyalty because you wish to see what will happen to them, should they persist in their ways. This makes perfect sense to you, because you would rather record the deeds and antics of the persistent son-of-a-bitch who resides within you than the patient pilgrim, always seeking travels to lands far and impossible.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Dramatic Wisdom and Conventions, Double-Breasted Suits

The same creative writing teacher who lost sixty pounds and began wearing double-breasted suits, and who also told you to either literally or figuratively shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph, was fierce in reminding you how accidents could make things worse but they could not make things better.

In one of your final meetings with him, he also spoke of the Russian formalists, whom he assumed you would study when you got to the university. Some of them posited that a story with a carpenter driving a nail in an opening scene required you to hang something from that nail before the story could be considered done.

You did in fact spend some time trying to figure out what the Russian formalists were all about and after much confusion and indecision settled on a theory that was in fact influenced by them: details had to be relevant. 

Your reading of the so-called American realists meant you could go around, listing details all over the place by way of providing information about the characters. A favorite approach of yours was to get a character to open a kitchen cupboard or a bathroom cabinet, therein to list such medications or foodstuffs as pleased your picture of the individual. 

The sad reality you encountered somewhere well down the line was that you'd given yourself over to various devices and approaches to storytelling that appealed more to critical theory and the intellect than they did to the senses and to the emotions. 

At about the time you became aware of this, you were taken on as a client by a literary agent who had his own list of particulars, with the result that your output was in its way like a dog of unknown and multiple parentage,

Only today, while you were composing, you were aware of  significant character, a close friend of your narrator, using one of your all-time favorite lines of dialogue, "I can't do this any more." This stopped you cold in your writing tracks to the point where you capped your fountain pen, then took a long, thoughtful slug of coffee, thinking once again about the former creative writing teacher who was also formerly overweight.  

He warned you about the expressions, "But it really happened that way," relating to an incident you were writing about in a story, and "But this character is based on my Uncle Fred, who really said that." You were reminded of the "I can't do this anymore" spoken by you, when you'd reached a critical point in your attempts to write stories including all the dramatic wisdom and conventions you'd picked up over the years.

The years to which you refer span the time between high school and now and thus have come to merit the adjective considerable because you have been collecting dramatic wisdom and convention for a long fucking time. 

To your credit, you've been working at distinguishing between the wisdom and convention you no longer wish to listen to and the wisdom and conventions that speak to you on a level that seems to begin somewhere in your viscera, then proceed to a place somewhere within muscle memory, where intent, word order, and a code book of user instructions reside in the equivalent of companionable unity.

If there is, as some exotic cultures believe, a particular residing place for the intuition, this place is the home for the code book of user instructions you follow when setting down early drafts and when you edit these to remove some of the reflexes and habits you have not been able to purge from the operating system.

Now that you think about it, you have been a creative writing teacher for a long fucking time, although your preference for self-description is not so much a creative writing teacher as an editor and a writing instructor. Long fucking time can stand on its own. You sometimes what mosquito-like buzzing you put into your students' head, causing them to awaken at night with a sound of something they will need time to remove from their psyche. 

You tell your students Don't think, not for the first draft. The more you spend time thinking, the more time you will have to spend removing. Time enough for considerations about removing things when the revision begins.

In your lifetime, you have had five double-breasted suits, one given you by your mother's youngest brother, the other four, all of a distinct Italian nature, were given you by an actor you used to work for. The suit from your uncle never seemed to drape well, and you were pleased to outgrow it. The suits from the actor were taken immediately to a tailor named Sol, who transformed them into single-breasted garments,